The multi-billion-dollar plant being built to process highly radioactive waste at the Hanford Site is years behind schedule and not expected to begin operations until the end of this decade at the earliest.
But while scientists and regulators debate the safety of the plant, officials at the Hanford Site face a much more significant problem -- the loss of storage space in huge tanks built to hold 56 million gallons of radioactive wastes.
Built between the 1940s and 1980s, the 177 waste tanks at Hanford were always seen as a temporary solution. Single-shell tanks constructed in the first decades of plutonium production were designed to last just 20 years, while double-shell tanks built in the 1970s and 1980s were expected to last 50 years.
With the current waste treatment process expected to last into the middle of the century, many of the aging tanks will have to hold waste well past their design lives. Already some are failing. In February, the Department of Energy announced that six single-shell tanks were leaking -- in addition to some 60 others that were assumed to be leaking in the past. And last year, Hanford officials confirmed that one of the 28 double-shell tanks was leaking.
The only answer, many experts and Hanford stakeholders say, is to build more storage tanks capable of containing the high-level nuclear waste until it can be processed safely.
"They have no where to put it so, they're stuck. It's like you're floating in a boat that's leaking and it's going to go into the ocean. There isn't anywhere else," said Casey Ruud, a former Energy Department official who was in charge of the tank safety program at Hanford during the mid-1990s. "Very simply put, it's going into the environment. There's nowhere else for it to go."
The KING 5 Investigators found that the advice to build more storage tanks isn't new. As far back as 20 years ago, top Energy officials urged their bosses to prepare for the worst and build additional tanks. But that advice wasn't heeded -- a storage tank hasn’t been built at Hanford for nearly 30 years.
“These tanks are not spring chickens,” said noted nuclear policy expert Bob Alvarez, who was one of Department of Energy managers urging construction of new tanks two decades ago.
“We understood by the early- to mid-1990s that the existing tanks at Hanford would not necessarily hold up. The original plan was to have six spare tanks constructed. That was taken off the table to save money. The contractor was given a bonus and now that’s turning out to be a very regretful decision,” said Alvarez.
Pressure from all sides
In the years since, dozens of other officials charged with the responsibility to help keep the nuclear leftovers from leaking to the nearby Columbia River have echoed the same advice.
On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he continues to pressure the federal government to do the right thing to keep the state safe.
Earlier this year, in response to the news that 6 more single-shell tanks are leaking, Inslee said the Department of Energy could be in violation of federal and state laws by not having enough safe tanks.
“Frankly, (the state) is not convinced that current storage is adequate to meet legal and regulatory requirements,” Inslee said in February after the news that six single-shell tanks were leaking.
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber wrote the Department of Energy in January with the same message: “The clear degradation of at least one double-shell tank...and the ongoing need to retrieve and store waste from the old single-shell tanks demand immediate action to develop additional tank capacity,” he wrote, adding "the sooner the better.”
Washington state Department of Ecology officials are on record stating that up to eight new tanks should be constructed as soon as possible.
“Ecology believes one critical thing that needs to be done is to construct new DST’s (double shell tanks). Space continues to be the critical limiting factor. ... What do we do if other tanks are discovered to be leaking?” wrote Ecology administrators in a memo this year.
The Hanford Advisory Board, a federally chartered panel of citizens, scientists, and politicians charged with issuing advice to state and federal agencies about Hanford policies, also formally advised the Department of Energy to make building new tanks a priority.
“The Board advises DOE to begin the process immediately to build additional tank capacity at Hanford,” the Board wrote in November 2012.
And just this month, the advisory board came back with the same message, with a stronger sense of urgency.
“New tanks are needed. The Board advises DOE to immediately initiate the process for the funding and design of new tanks, and initiate an accelerated process of building new Double-Shell Tanks,” the board members wrote on September 6.
Dept. of Energy response
KING 5 asked Department of Energy officials at Hanford if they believe more storage tanks should be built and if there is a person or group studying the possibility.
They didn’t answer the questions, but Energy spokesperson Lori GamachE submitted this one sentence response: "The Department continues to assess all options for the safe and efficient completion of Hanford’s tank waste mission."
At a public meeting in April, a top Energy official at Hanford said officials at the site are thinking over the suggestion that new tanks be added.
"We're not currently designing new tanks, we're not currently building but will that be considered in the future? We've had recommendations recently from the Hanford Advisory Board and the governors of Washington and Oregon to that extent and the department's analyzing it," DOE's Steve Pfaff told members of the Metropolitan Democratic Club of Seattle.
"What we see here is that they're asleep at the wheel. They don't realize that their tank space is gone and they're at huge jeopardy of contaminating the environment more than they already have," said Ruud. "It's an abysmal failure on their part for not having (built new tanks). They should be embarrassed and they should be run out of their positions on a rail."
The Department of Energy has said building more tanks would take up to ten years and hundreds of millions of scarce taxpayer dollars.
But the Boilermakers Union, whose members have built storage tanks such as these at Hanford and other locations, say they can do the job much faster and cheaper and they're ready for the work.
Statements from Washington's U.S. Senators
Spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray: “Senator Murray has demanded that the scientific experts at DOE come up with a comprehensive plan that will address the future of the tank farm and nuclear waste cleanup at Hanford, and she expects that plan to be done in a timely manner. Senator Murray has always insisted the decisions at Hanford be based on sound science, and nothing else, and therefore she believes it would be inappropriate to pre-judge the need for new tanks before DOE presents its plan.”
Spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell: “Senator Cantwell wants all waste removed from leaking and non-leaking tanks as soon as possible. She is pushing to move the material to be processed and removed from Hanford as quickly as possible. Sen. Cantwell is working with Secretary Moniz to explore the idea of developing separate plans for defense and civilian waste permanent storage in order to expedite Hanford cleanup. She will review tanks in light of the Secretary’s upcoming proposal on Hanford cleanup.”
-- Susannah Frame's continuing coverage: Hanford's Dirty Secrets.